Islanders already on track for some history

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As the smoke from burning John Tavares sweaters plumed into the clouds across Long Island last July, nobody, not even the most optimistic and ardent Islanders supporter, would have predicted this.

Here in mid-February, the Tavares-less New York Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division and in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. Barry Trotz is without question the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award and the team could very well be hosting playoff games in April. So how have the Islanders gotten it done?

One of the best stories in the league has been the resurgence of Robin Lehner, who publicly discussed his struggles with mental health earlier in the season. Lehner has gone 13-2-1 since mid-December and leads the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.05). Any idea who ranks second in both categories? That would be the Isles’ other goaltender Thomas Greiss (.927 SV%, 2.28 GAA). Only once in the Expansion Era (since 1967-68) has a goalie tandem finished first and second in both categories. That would be Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who did so for the 1968-69 St. Louis Blues.

Of course, the defense in front of both goaltenders has been exceptional. Last season, the Islanders gave up a league-worst 293 goals, which was the most allowed by any team since the Flyers surrendered 297 in in 2006-07. That Flyers team finished last in the NHL with just 56 points. This year, the Islanders have allowed only 128 goals, the fewest in the league. For perspective, only once in NHL history has a team had the most goals allowed followed by the fewest goals allowed the following season. It happened over 100 years ago around World War I, when the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114 GA) turned things around in 1918-19 (53 GA). Who could forget that?

Another surprising aspect of this year’s Islanders club has been the team’s depth at center, especially after Tavares walked in free agency. Mathew Barzal (48 points), Brock Nelson (36), Valtteri Filppula (22) and Casey Cizikas (22) have combined for 128 points and 56 goals. Production from Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points, was to be expected. But Nelson is on pace for a career-high 53 points and has already exceeded his 35 from last season. Cizikas, meanwhile, already has a career-best 12 goals on the fourth line and Filppula is on track for 33 points for the second consecutive year.

The Islanders have one other peculiar chance at history, as they are an unblemished 9-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs. The best perfect record in the second game of back to backs is 4-0-0, by the 1935-36 Black Hawks (two words back then).

If the Isles manage to stay in the playoff picture, perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all will be where they will host their postseason games. The team has split their home games this year between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday will be the final one at Barclays Center during the regular season, with 12 more games still left to play at the Coliseum, where they are 6-1-2 thus far. Commissioner Gary Bettman will reportedly decide where the Isles will host their playoff games and politicians from Nassau County have petitioned him to pick the Coliseum. If the choice ends up being Long Island rather than Brooklyn, the Isles could have one of the more significant home ice advantages in the league. If you want a preview for how loud the old barn can get, tune in when the Islanders host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 28 and April 1. The last time Nassau Coliseum hosted a playoff game was Game 6 of the First Round in 2015, when New York defeated Trotz and the Washington Capitals 3-1. They would go on to lose Game 7 in D.C.

Still, with all of the optimism following the team this season, Islanders players do not sound satisfied. Not with 27 games left to go.

“We’re still hunting,” forward Anthony Beauvillier told Newsday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”

The Islanders will continue to have their doubters come playoff time, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and the championship pedigree of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins lurking in their own division. But the Isles have a bit of their own pedigree now with Lou Lamoriello in the front office and Trotz behind the bench. Nobody thought the Vegas Golden Knights would make the Stanley Cup Final last season either. Who knows where this year’s surprising Islanders squad could wind up?

Islanders enjoying success in Nassau Coliseum return

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — This season has played out beyond the dreams of New York Islanders fans through 49 games. The team sits in first place seven months to the day that John Tavares announced he would be leaving to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they’ve added their old home, Nassau Coliseum, to 21 dates on the schedule, which has resulted in plenty of nostalgia and wins.

As the Islanders prepare to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday night on Long Island, they look to build off their 5-1-1 record at the renovated Coliseum, the place they left for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center after the 2014-15 season. 

The atmosphere that made the Coliseum a beloved place to play for the franchise from 1972-2005 didn’t miss a beat when they played their first game of the season there in December, a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“The Coliseum is a big part of the identity of this team,” said forward Matt Martin. “A lot of history there. You can feel it when you’re in there.”

As the Islanders await the ceremony where they’ll break ground on a new rink near Belmont race track which is expected to be ready for the 2021-22 season, they’ll play 14 of their final 17 home games this season at the Coliseum. Where will they play should the Stanley Cup Playoffs become a reality in the spring? That’s still up in the air, but no one is getting ahead of themselves yet.

“I’d like to get in it before I worry about that,” said general manager Lou Lamoriello. “That’s not on anybody’s mind right now. That’ll come at the appropriate time. The NHL will be involved in that.”

The switch to the Coliseum has made life for players much easier. Their practice facility is less than a mile away and with most of the players living on Long Island, their gameday commute is cut down dramatically, allowing them extra time with their families or an extended pre-game nap.

The atmosphere is the trait of the Coliseum that is known league-wide. With a capacity of 13,917, which is cut down from its original 16,297 before the renovation, the volume is noticeable, and according to Martin, who played the first six seasons of his NHL career in the building, it still exists.

“It feels similar. That building’s always been really loud,” he said. “I don’t think you really notice that there’s less seats. It’s got a little bit of a makeover on it. It always felt like the fans were right on top of you. That’s the great thing about old buildings. 

“Everything’s being built bigger and wide and deeper and more expensive and for multi-purpose. To me, those old buildings, just that on-top-of-you feeling, you’ve got people right in your face all game and you hear the crowd and you feed off the crowd. It’s just a great environment for us to play.”

Barry Trotz knows all about the fans being on top of the opposition. The Islanders head coach was with the Washington Capitals when the two teams met in the first-round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals would win the series in seven games, closing the door on the Coliseum the first time around.

He’s happy to be on the other side of things this time around.

“You have a great tradition there. The fans are on top of you,” he said. “Trust me, you can hear them. They can hit you with the odd beer or two as you’re going off, get in your face, all those things. It’s a quaint building in a sense that it’s not overly big. The new buildings everybody’s so far away. They don’t feel like they’re on top of you. Some of the smaller buildings, like Winnipeg’s building, is designed where they’re on top of you a little bit. 

“Trust me, you feel it. You feel the energy from the other team and we get energy off our crowd. It’s a fun place to play.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Isles’ Mathew Barzal impresses All-Star teammates

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SAN JOSE — Barry Trotz’s message to Mathew Barzal before he left for the 2019 NHL All-Star Game was simple.

“Take note of the top, top players, the absolute top players, how they interact with not only the fans, but other players and how prepared they are,” the New York Islanders head coach said earlier this week.

The 21-year-old Barzal was one of the youngest players to take part in All-Star Weekend and got to live out a dream playing with his idol, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. 

Set up with Crosby and Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, the trio helped guide the Metropolitan Division to the All-Star title, first topping the Atlantic Division 7-4 before winning the $1M prize after a 10-5 victory over the Central Division in the final. Barzal played his part scoring twice and assisting on two others. The three of them combined to score eight of their team’s 17 goals.

The extra space provided by the 3-on-3 format allowed Barzal to show off his puck-handling abilities and utilize the speed that helped him finish third in Friday’s Fastest Skater event. Those talents also impressed his All-Star teammates, who see a lot of him on the other side of the ice as division foes.

“The way he holds onto the puck, the way he skates, 3-on-3, I don’t know if there is anyone better when it comes to holding onto it,” said Crosby, who earned MVP honors. “The way that he can just beat you 1-on-1, beat you with his speed, hold onto it. You watch him out there against the best, I don’t see anyone that really beats him in that category.

“Five-on-5, he’s able to do that, so 3-on-3 with all that ice, seeing that firsthand, I’ve seen that a lot and today was another example of that.”

The extra space and having those two dynamic forwards on the ice helped create tough situations for the Atlantic and Central Division teams. Crosby and Letang have played together for 13 seasons in Pittsburgh, so there was already a chemistry built in between the Penguins teammates. Barzal’s skills only strengthened the trio.

“You already have a chemistry going and we added a tremendous player with Mathew, who was just skating everywhere carrying the puck,” said Letang. “I was just staying back making sure there was nothing happening behind us.”

“Sid just kind of said, ‘Just grab it and get us up the ice and we’ll find a spot,’ so, it was kind of cool,” Barzal said. “Those guys would pass me the puck and them working to get open and I was just trying to find them.”

Barzal, last season’s Calder Trophy winner, leads the Islanders in points through 49 games with 14 goals and 31 assists. In his second NHL season he’s helped guide the team to a surprising start — one that sees them atop their division. He’ll now get to remember this weekend and enjoy a few days off as the team begins its bye week before a big matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nassau Coliseum on Friday.

“It’s obviously something I’m not going to forget,” Barzal said. “I’ve got my parents here this week, which is great. It’s just been really fun lately. Our Islander team’s been doing well and to come here and do well and get a chance to play with Sid and Letang and Claude [Giroux] and some new faces, it’s been a blast.”

MORE:
NHL All-Star Skills 2019: Winners, funny moments, Gritty
NHL All-Star Game 2019: Metro wins final, Crosby lands MVP
All-Star MVP adds to Crosby’s ‘great memories’ of San Jose
Sharks soak in the love from fans during NHL All-Star Weekend

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trotz beginning to change culture for New York Islanders

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Barry Trotz didn’t scan the rafters for the banner.

Back in Washington, he never once looked up for the championship flag hanging high above the home ice of the Capitals. Yet when he turned around for the national anthem, Trotz said he saw the big white letters standing out on the red banner: ”STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2018” around the Capitals logo.

When the anthem was over, he turned back to the visitors’ bench and got back to work on trying to earn some more banners to hang – in New York.

After delivering the Capitals’ first championship in franchise history, Trotz is well on his way to changing the culture in his first season as Islanders coach and bringing that proud organization back to prominence. By implementing the same discipline off the ice and structure on the ice he did in Washington, Trotz has the Islanders in first place in their division past the halfway mark of the NHL season for just the second time in the past 28 years.

”It feels very similar to the first year (in Washington),” Trotz said. ”We were building something. We started with the structure and trying to make every moment count, the accountability, how we play, professionalism – all those things that make a pro athlete on and off the ice. We try to involve that with our organization as we did here. They’ve carried it on to the Stanley Cup, and we’re in the infancy stages.”

Modest to a fault and not eager to accept praise, Trotz considers the Islanders a ”work in progress.” But a lot of things are working:

They have won five in a row and 12 of 14. Their goalies lead the league with a .920 save percentage after ranking 28th last season. They have allowed the fewest goals a game in the league after being the worst in that category last season.

All this after point-a-game center John Tavares left in free agency to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders were expected to struggle, to say the least.

Instead, they’ve thrived.

”I think a lot of guys took it as a little bit of an insult when we were starting to get ranked to be the worst team in the league after he left,” fourth-line winger Matt Martin said. ”(Trotz) gets the best out of everybody. … He gives everybody the role and responsibilities, everyone’s playing similar minutes every night, getting a real good opportunity to play. As a player, when you’re getting those opportunities and you feel emotionally invested, you feel involved.”

It could take a while for the Islanders to become a perennial Cup contender like they were four decades ago. But the building blocks are being put in place under first-year general manager Lou Lamoriello and Trotz’s staff that includes longtime goaltending guru Mitch Korn.

Trotz’s former players aren’t the least bit surprised at the early success.

”If you ask him, I’m sure he’s not surprised either,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”I actually think they’ve got really good players there. But he’s got that tendency to bring in a good system and to make sure you focus on the right things and he’s always pushing guys to get better.”

Reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal is on almost a point-a-game pace in his second season, captain Anders Lee is on the way to a 30-goal season, and Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are stopping the puck at some of the best rates of their careers. Lee said he believes one of the Islanders’ strengths is how someone different seems to step up every night, a result of Trotz balancing ice time and making them feel like a cohesive unit.

”He does a wonderful job of rolling with guys that are feeling it or lines that are doing well that night and giving them matchups and getting everyone involved,” Lee said. ”He has a really good sense of how the game is going, the flow of it, and he can make those quick decisions in-game that makes him so effective.”

Lamoriello knew what he was getting in Trotz, who’s fourth all-time in NHL coaching wins and had an impressive resume from Nashville and Washington even before winning the Cup. The Islanders lucked out in getting Trotz, who left the Capitals in a contract dispute in June days after the championship.

”There’s no question that Barry Trotz is one of the elite coaches over the past X number of years in the National Hockey League,” Lamoriello said. ”He came with a group that had a very sort of down year for a lot of different reasons last year. We added some unique people as far as what they bring as far as character as well as abilities. I think that everybody just has made a total commitment from ownership through management that we were going to do everything that was necessary to have success, and either people were going to be on board or they weren’t going to be.”

Defenseman Brooks Orpik said it took some time a few years ago for the Capitals to understand why Trotz wanted some things, including the same set of rules for every player. The respect Trotz earned from Alex Ovechkin on down is growing with the Islanders.

”He’s been awesome,” winger Josh Bailey said. ”As a group, you’ve got to be able to trust your leadership, which is our staff and Barry’s the head of that for sure.”

After Trotz got his Cup ring earlier this season and before he coached his first game back in Washington, he told Islanders players he wants to have the same championship experience with them.

”It’s a day-to-day process,” Trotz said. ”You hear coaches use that, stay with the process. Just stay and keep growing as a team. And we don’t know where we’re going to end up.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Robin Lehner’s turnaround powers surging Islanders

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Just as news was breaking that he was the NHL’s “First Star of the Week,” New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner was deflecting the individual praise and identifying the accomplishment as a team effort.

“It’s nice when you get recognized sometimes but when the team plays good there’s going to be personal success for people, too,” Lehner said after Monday’s practice. “We’re playing a helluva team game and it’s rewarding everyone.”

His teammates have certainly helped during the team’s five-game winning streak that has helped put them atop the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders have held their last three opponents — the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, and New Jersey Devils — to under 20 shots, which is the first time that’s happened since their 1977-78 NHL season, per Eric Hornick. They’ve also averaged 3.1 goals per game in January, up a tick from their average of 2.95 from October to New Year’s Eve.

Lehner, who detailed his mental health and addiction issues in an article for The Athletic in September, has helped the Islanders win 10 of his last 11 starts and leads all goaltenders with at least 25 appearances in even strength save percentage (.937). His crease partner, Thomas Greiss, has posted a .930 ESSV% in 26 games this season. The success in net has been improved this season thanks to the work of goaltending coach Piero Greco and Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn.

Greco’s work with Lehner opened the 27-year-old’s eyes to what he could be doing better in his own game, like simplifying it.

“I don’t move that much. It’s not very exciting in there. It’s not a lot of flashy saves,” Lehner said. “Them calming me down, teaching me a little bit on how to play my angles has opened up some potential that I have reading plays. Before maybe I’ve been moving a little bit too much, I’ve been scrambling a little bit too much; but a key part to my game that I feel is reading plays, being patient, and with them slowing all that stuff down it’s really bringing that out.”

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz noted that the play of both of his goalies is in part to Greco and Korn earning their trust and “connecting the dots” in their games that’s led to winning habits through 48 games. 

“When we do breakdown, it’s not necessarily all the saves but it’s when you make those saves and they’ve been making the saves at the right time,” he added.

The saves have been coming at the right times with the Islanders entering Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks after two straight shutouts and a streak of 132:53 without allowing a goal. 

Among Lehner’s improvements this season includes handling the puck, something that he categorized as “below par.”

“People talk a lot the last few games we haven’t let in many shots at net, but it’s also a lot of the work me and Greisser are doing in playing the puck,” he said. “People try to get pressure, they dump the puck in and we’ve been able to break it out fast and all of a sudden we’re in their zone. That just keeps adding to what we want to do as a team here.”

Before this run of form, there was a span from November to early December when success wasn’t coming Lehner’s way. While he’s felt great all season, a back injury and a six-start streak of losses preceded this success for the goaltender and his team. But getting back to being patient and simplifying things has vaulted the team up the standings and helped the netminder to a stunning first-half turnaround.

“There were a couple games [earlier in the season] where I played really good but didn’t get a result,” he said. “That’s kind of sticking with it. We keep working with the goalie coaches, believing the structure of our team will take our steps and turn it around. That’s what we done.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.